Showing posts with label crime. Show all posts
Showing posts with label crime. Show all posts

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

 I came to this book through a recommendation from Kate Macdonald in her excellent series of podcasts, Why I Really Like This Book.  I'm with Kate on this one - I really like Miss Pym Disposes.  Published in 1946, but clearly taking place in interwar England - the Second World War is never mentioned or hinted at - Tey's novel is a good companion read to Gaudy Night.  Before the novel starts, Lucy Pym has escaped via a timely inheritance from her work as a full-time French teacher; having leisure in which to read and think, she has - much to her own surprise - written a popular and best-selling book on psychology.  Now something of a celebrity, she has been asked by her old school friend Henrietta Hodge to deliver a guest lecture at the Leys Physical Training College, where Henrietta is now Principal.  Lucy at first finds the environment of the College intolerable - the first bell of the day rings at half-past-five, and the food is revolting - but as she gets to know the students she is rather seduced by the Leys and the opportunity it gives her to spend time with the young.  It is the end of the academic year, and the students are tense under the pressure of examinations and the annual Demonstration of their gymnastic prowess; the graduating students are also anxious about getting a job.

Henrietta, as headmistress, allocates her students as she sees fit when the Leys is asked to fill a vacancy; the drama of the novel revolves around her choice to give a plum job, teacher at a prestigious girls' school, to Barbara Rouse rather than Mary Innes.  Barbara Rouse is a brilliant athlete but no scholar; Mary, with her intriguing face, the sort of face "around which history was built", is that tiresome thing, a high-achieving all-rounder.  Everyone at the Leys thinks that Mary should have been given this job - except Henrietta, who obstinately insists it will go to Rouse (the students are habitually known by surnames in the novel).  This decision causes an initial row and an eventual tragedy, and Miss Pym finds herself with knowledge that might change many lives.

The title comes from a quote from Thomas a Kempis, "Man proposes, but God disposes".  Miss Pym has several opportunities - all of them unwelcome to her - during the novel to acquire information and to choose whether and how to use it - in short, to take upon herself the responsibility for disposal.  Will she - because of or despite her knowledge of human psychology - get it right?

The atmosphere of the Leys is both appallingly healthy - all the girls and most of the staff are fit and well-nourished - and emotionally strained.  The Anglo-Brazilian student Teresa Desterro, known in the College as the Nut Tart because of her origins and her glamorous clothes, tells Miss Pym that "you cannot expect them to be normal", that the stress of the final term sends all the girls somewhat insane.  Sometimes this can be a little sinister: when the girls hear that Miss Pym is going to stay on for a few days, she hears a chorus of voices through her bedroom window: "Miss Pym, we are so glad that you are staying [...] Yes, Miss Pym.  We are glad.  Glad.  Miss Pym.  Yes.  Yes.  Glad, Miss Pym".  No wonder she then hears an inner voice suggesting she get away from the Leys by the first available train.  In a novel of this period set in an all-female establishment, it's impossible not to wonder if lesbianism is implicit, and indeed powerful affections between women are an important part of the plot, but Tey approaches this so subtly that I'm still not quite sure what she was really implying, and her implications are mediated through Miss Pym, who may have her own reasons for further obscuring the meaning.

This is an artful, fascinating little book that resonated with me for a long time after I finished it, and I quite want to read it again now to see how it was done.  The book is full of charming and interesting characters and Lucy Pym is not the least of these; she is a long way from the starchy spinster the title might lead you to expect.  When her hand is kissed by a famous actor, "somebody behind tittered, but Lucy liked having her hand kissed.  What was the good of putting rose-water and glycerine on every night if you didn't have a little return now and then?" The Nut Tart herself is a joyful and exuberant character, and the sub-plot involving the famous actor shows Miss Pym off to good effect.

The narrative is witty and combines light and dark to great effect.  This was my first Tey and I see there are lots of others (and a series of books in which she appears as a detective) so I have plenty more to enjoy.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

I'm a bit of a Sayers novice, having only got around to reading Whose Body? last year.  Gaudy Night fits in with the theme of my current PhD chapter, so I had an excuse to finally read it.  This is one of those books that I've read a lot about, as it crops up frequently in critical works, so much so that I was well aware of whodunnit before I opened the book.

Gaudy Night starts with Harriet Vane's visit to her old Oxford college, the fictional Shrewsbury College, which is holding the titular Gaudy, a reunion dinner for former students.  Harriet has, somewhat unwillingly, agreed to go to meet an old friend she hasn't seen for many years.  Harriet's enjoyment of the Gaudy is mixed; the old friend proves bland and disappointing, but she is pleased to renew her acquaintance among some of the dons.  Harriet has a certain notoriety about her; she is a writer of crime novels and she has been previously implicated in a murder case.  Both of these matters bring some unwelcome attention and involve her more deeply in Shrewsbury affairs.

It emerges that unpleasant practical jokes are being played on the inhabitants of Shrewsbury.  Harriet herself received an anonymous note during the Gaudy, and found an obscene drawing blowing about in the quad.  Summoned by the Dean of the College, Harriet finds that the anonymous letter-writer has been busy at Shrewsbury and now proofs of a new book have been muddled and damaged beyond use.  The Dean is unwilling to call in the police, but perhaps Harriet can help.  She returns to Oxford on the pretext of doing some academic work, and begins to investigate.  Off-stage for much of the novel, Lord Peter Wimsey nevertheless makes his presence felt; Harriet's thoughts are caught up by his reiterated proposals of marriage.  He also appears occasionally to help Harriet and charm the women of Shrewsbury.

The theme of this book is really the question, what should women do with their lives?  Should they marry, work or both?  If they work, what work is suitable?  Is being a wife really a job in itself?  Harriet is caught between these choices, drawn to the academic life but pulled back again by the idea of marriage to Peter.  It is this theme that both drives the plot and Harriet's emotional journey.  Sayers has a good look round it, with voices raised in support of women's work in general and women's scholarship in particular, but also antagonism towards the working woman and especially the working mother clearly on display from some characters.

Compared to Whose Body?, this book is vastly more sophisticated in terms of structure and style; the characters are more developed and there is much less comedy, although I think Sayers must have been quite keen on the farcical crime scene; Peter's nephew Lord Saint-George also provides a touch of humour, as does the undergraduate who falls in love with Harriet.   The plot evolves fairly slowly (a previous reader of my library copy has written "STILL NO CRIME" on page 39) but the book is very absorbing even when you do know how it turns out.  Now I plan to read Strong Poison and get the first part of Harriet Vane's story ...

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

This was my first Dorothy L. Sayers, and for the first third of the book I thought it might well be my last.    Lord Peter Wimsey's daffy monologues irritated rather than charmed, the archness of the narrative annoyed me, the little self-referential footnotes got on my nerves.  But as I reached the middle section of the book it started to hook me in.  The novel - and the characters - seemed to genuinely care about the unfortunate murder victims; the narrative suddenly fleshed out Lord Peter, his valet Bunter, and the senior policeman Parker, giving them three-dimensional characters instead of vaguely throwing literary stereotypes onto the page; the atmosphere of 1920s London became breathable.  I also came to enjoy Sayers's style: the scene where a woman must try to identify her husband after he has been fairly thoroughly dissected in an anatomy lab, told almost entirely through dialogue, was particularly powerful.

The plotting is not terribly sophisticated, and it is fairly obvious from the early stages who the murderer is; the tension is built in the race to prove his guilt before he realises that discovery is imminent.  Sayers is very good at showing how many people are touched by the effects of a crime, how its impact radiates out through many layers of society.  I finished this book looking forward to reading the next one in the series.

This was also the first book I'd read on an e-reader.  A Kobo has come into my possession, and as yet I'm not entirely sure about it, although it is hugely convenient for travelling.  I missed the sensation of holding the book in my hands, and the Kobo didn't turn the pages quickly enough for my liking.  If you have (or acquire) an e-reader I highly recommend Girlebooks, who have a lovely range of women's writing, much of it free, in various e-book formats.

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Blotting Book by E.F. Benson

This little 1908 novel is the story of a murder; rather unexpected from E.F. Benson who I know best for the Lucia books.  Morris Assheton is a young man from a wealthy background; his inheritance is held in trust until his twenty-fifth birthday, unless he marries before that date.  The trustees are Mr Taynton and Mr Mills, the family solicitors.  Mr Taynton is an agreeable, avuncular sort; charitable, religious and fond of his routines, he contrasts with the much pricklier Mr Mills.  Beneath the surface, however, they are more alike, since they have made some ill-advised speculations with Morris's money, hoping for personal profits.  When it becomes clear that Morris is in love, and likely to marry, Taynton becomes alarmed.  Can he buy enough time to restore Morris's inheritance, ensure his reputation and his prospects for a comfortable retirement?

The novel is set in Brighton, where I live, and many of the locations are still recognisable, although the murder scene, a quiet path over the downs from Falmer to Brighton, is much less rural nowadays and probably less conducive to violent crime.  Benson's book is not really a whodunit - it's fairly obvious who the murderer is - but it still makes use of typical tools of the genre.  Letters, railway timetables, calendars and the eponymous blotting book are all either clues or misdirections.  Again, while the book doesn't include the psychological analysis you get in Golden Age detective fiction, it is interested in the boundaries between fantasy, memory and forgetting.  

I thought Benson could have done more with the character of Mrs Assheton, Morris's mother - she felt very undeveloped to me, particularly in the context of Benson's more famous female characters - and the mouth-breathing Superintendent Figgis is a caricature.  But the social milieu - upper-class luxury on the Edwardian scale - is very well evoked, and the book is an enjoyable, if slight, read.  The Blotting Book is available in a print-on-demand edition - but the very nice Hogarth Press paperback can be had for a penny on Amazon.   Or you can find it on Project Gutenberg.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

By a Slow River by Philippe Claudel

Claudel's novel (also available in English translation under the title Grey Souls) combines a mystery story - three young women will die during the course of the novel - with an extended contemplation of the workings of memory and the nature of truth.  Set in a village close to the front in World War I, the novel is narrated by the local gendarme, who is professionally involved in two of the deaths.  These two deaths - a murder and a suicide - will come to affect him as profoundly and as personally as the death of his wife ClĂ©mence in childbirth, and the unravelling of the cause of the deaths forms the structure of the novel.

Our narrator is attuned to the workings of hierarchy in French society in general and in the justice system in particular. The caste separations between the semi-aristocratic or professional classes and the peasant/servant class are marked, but are being challenged by the effects of war and of the early twentieth century in general.  The narrator exemplifies this: he comes from peasant stock, but his work brings him into the world of the bourgeoisie, and he watches it defend itself against intruders, dismissing and abusing the proletarians that pass through its machinery.  The village he lives in is curiously untouched by the war; columns of soldiers pass through, and many young men have vanished, but enough are in trades that exempt them from war service. There is a new hierarchy to be negotiated, separating those who have fought and died in the war from those remaining at home.

 He also grapples with the slippery nature of memory and the elusiveness of truth.  On the first page, he speaks of "calling forth a lot of shadows"; the figures of memory can be insubstantial and two-dimensional, yet the narrative makes the key figures of the story vivid on the page.  He points up his own unreliability, yet throughout the narrative there are literal and metaphorical loaded guns, waiting to go off in the third act, that will both reinforce and subvert his assumed lack of control of his story.

It almost goes without saying that this book is profoundly sad.  Both plot and narrative style work to develop an air of melancholy, ennui and a fatalistic lack of agency that infects key characters with profound lassitude.  Because of this, I found it rather difficult to read for long periods, and had to approach it in short bursts.  Probably not a book to be picked up during low periods, but definitely one worth reading during happier times.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill

In a narrative moving between the first-person testimony of the murderer, and a third-person narrative with an individual focus in each chapter, Susan Hill develops a range of characters, some of whom will meet their deaths at the killer’s hands.  The central character is Detective Inspector Freya Graffham, new to the small cathedral town of Lafferton.  Freya has recently ended a disastrous marriage but finds herself reborn in Lafferton, taking up singing again, succeeding in her new workplace and developing new friendships.  When two women disappear in quick succession on the Hill, a local beauty spot much used by dog walkers, joggers and the occasional pagans at the Neolithic Wern Stones, Freya leads the investigation.

This is more of a suspense novel than a whodunit; it is clear fairly early on who the murderer is, although there are plenty of feints and red herrings to distract the reader.  The tension is built as we follow the police investigation, and wondering how they, especially Freya, will resolve the mystery.  This is Susan Hill, so the ending is sad, bleak and unredemptive; but also the characterisation is strong and distinctive, the writing beautiful, and the narrative empathetic to all her characters.  It is particularly satisfying to see the unfortunate victims as characters in the round, rather than meeting them only as a body in the library; their engagement with life and their personalities emphasise the tragedy of their deaths. Hill is also skilful in showing how the murderer’s self-justifications unravel as the facts become exposed.

The first of the Simon Serailler series (he is Freya’s boss in this novel, and makes few, but significant, appearances), this novel makes good use of its fictional setting that is strongly evocative of little towns like Salisbury huddled around a cathedral, and of one of the themes of the novel, the relationship between medicine and complementary therapies – a generous term for some of the outright charlatanism practiced by some in the novel.  It’s always nice to start the series of a book knowing there are several volumes ahead of you to enjoy; now I just need to avoid gobbling them all up at once.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

This is the third of Atkinson's novels to feature detective Jackson Brodie, and we also get another appearance from Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe. Set mainly in Edinburgh, the plot centres on Dr Joanna Hunter, who at six survived the random and brutal killing of her mother, older sister and baby brother. Their killer has now served his thirty-year sentence, and is shortly to be released. Dr Hunter and her one-year-old baby son Gabriel disappear; at first this is not seen as suspicious, given the circumstances and her husband Neil's confirmation that she is staying with an aunt, but her babysitter Reggie (short for Regina) is convinced something more sinister has happened. Jackson is almost literally thrown into Reggie's life; he has, by mistake, boarded a train to Edinburgh, which crashes very close to a house in which Reggie is dog-sitting. Dr Hunter has taught Reggie first aid, and she - in her own estimation - saves Jackson's life at the scene of the crash. Enlisted in the search for Dr Hunter, Jackson encounters Louise again, and each is caused to re-evaluate the wisdom of a recent marriage. Surrounding the main plot are Neil Hunter's dodgy business activities, Reggie's brother Billy's descent into criminality; and lots and lots of literary references, quotations and wordplay.

Like the two previous books, the plot is emotionally rich and satisfying, with appropriate opportunities for redemption and punishment; even the perpetually martyred Jackson is allowed some chinks of light to brighten his personal darkness. However, I wondered whether Atkinson is now working to something of a formula with these books, which might render them a little cynical. One short paragraph stands out in particular. Joanna Hunter's father was a novelist of the angry young man generation. When Joanna goes missing, Louise begins to read his novels, and notes that Howard Mason never wrote about the murder of his wife and children, the survival of Joanna. That, Louise thinks, would have been a bestseller. Kate Atkinson, of course, has written that bestseller; the reader of the paragraph is holding it in her hands. No doubt this is just a little self-referential joke, but it works against the tone of the novel, which is generally redemptive and humane. The novel remains an enjoyable work, however, and taps into issues of deep and enduring interest, such as how to live in the face of atrocities, both for the victims and those who attempt to help them.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

What Am I Doing Here? by Bruce Chatwin

Another collection of travel writing, including "stories" whose possibly fictional status Chatwin signposts in his forward. Chatwin the traveller is open and receptive, smiling and chatting with nuns sweeping the convent yard; recognising the conversational value of a fairly unrepentant old Nazi; peering in peoples' windows and waving at them when spotted. This approach bring him many stories - and probably also "stories" - to weave into his tales of places, usually exotic, often dangerous. He's a bit of a name-dropper, although shrewd enough to keep anecdotes of famous friends in check, and a master of the art of telling the reader just enough to whet the appetite for more. A real loss; but at least I have the majority of his work ahead of me.